Updated: Jun 8, 2022
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Sir Alec Guinness plays British Colonel Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa plays Japanese camp commander Colonel Saito in the epic World War II film that won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.
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“THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI: 65th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1957; PG for mild war violence; Streaming via Amazon Prime (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: Picture-in-graphics track “Crossing the Bridge” on the enclosed Blu-ray, with dozens of factoids about the real-life soldiers and comparisons of the novel to the screen
IT IS A TALE of sheer madness set in the jungles of Burma. Sir Alec Guinness (the original Obi-Wan Kenobi) plays Colonel Nicholson. Forced to surrender his regiment to the Japanese, the prisoners must work on a bridge – part of “the death railway” – from Bangkok to Rangoon. Slaving under unendurable conditions, tens of thousands of Allied POWs died alongside nearly 100,000 Asians.
Among the extras, we learn that 688 bridges were constructed like this, most by primitive tools and in terrible conditions.
In the ‘50s, David Lean was nothing more than a British art-house director picked to helm the epic that took nine months of filming in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was nearly broke after a recent divorce and had to get an advance on his $150,000 paycheck from Columbia Pictures so he could fix his teeth. Lean wasn’t even producer Sam Spiegel’s first choice. Spiegel hoped to snag an American director with more clout, someone like John Ford or Howard Hawks, but both men rejected the job. It was Lean or no one.
(1) “The Bridge on the River Kwai” premiered in London on October 2, 1957. (2&3) Colonel Nicholson and his officers get their first look at Prisoner of War Camp 16, in the middle of Burma jungles. (4) U.S. Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) and prisoner Weaver give the last rites for another dead British prisoner.
Spiegel also recruited two American blacklisted writers – both exiled in Europe. Carl Foreman (“High Noon”) and Michael Wilson wrote the screen adaptation, based on the 1952 French novel by Pierre Boulle (“Planet of the Apes”). Boulle was inspired by Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, who he met in a POW camp. The British officer oversaw the construction of two bridges in Thailand. One made of concrete and steel was bombed by the Allies in 1945, but repaired and still stands today.
Foreman and Wilson threw in an American twist: William Holden’s U.S. Navy role – originally a British officer – and a love interest to ensure an American and female audience. The changes clearly paid off as the film earned a 1,000-percent return. It also won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and five more Oscars.
Sadly, Foreman and Wilson were both denied credit by Spiegel so the Oscar for Best Screenplay went to novelist Boulle, who had not written a word of the prize-winning script. On Oscar Night, Lean and Spiegel actually got into a physical fight backstage over the snubbed writers, using their Oscars as swords. Their differences were short-lived as they went on to produce and direct “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) together, another blockbuster and winner of seven Oscars. Lean was now the hottest director going.
The British Prisoners Arrive at the Labor Camp
The handsome two-disc 65th Anniversary 4K Steelbook set also includes a Blu-ray that houses all of the extras including a carryover 50-minute documentary from 2000. It reveals why the soldiers whistled the famous Colonel Bogey March in the film instead of singing the tune. It also tells of the disagreements between Lean and Guinness.
“I thought it was a good part, but not a man I could sympathize with. He was completely insane,” Guinness says during an interview for the American Film Institute. Guinness was so unsure of his performance that he had Lean produce a rough cut he could view on location with his family. The actor left the screening without acknowledgment although his family returned to tell Lean, “It’s his very best work.” Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor.
You’ll also find several 1957 promotional featurettes from “The Steve Allen Show,” and Holden’s narration from the world premiere along with still photographs.
Writer/director John Milius (“Red Dawn,” “Clear and Present Danger”) salutes “River Kwai,” which he saw as a kid; he wanted to be a commando. “It has an extraordinary sense of grandeur and largeness,” Milus says. “Still, everything goes wrong with the commandos.” First, they land in the wrong place. One of them is killed during the parachute landing. Next, they’re forced to take a different route to the bridge. The team leader is shot in the foot, and they end up carrying him the rest of the way. Ay! “But there’s this wonderful sense of achievement that they will keep going and going into this insane mission.”
Struggling to Survive
Sony restoration supervisor Grover Crip says, during an interview with The Guardian, the picture is sourced from the 2009-10 4K digital restoration that removed dirt and scratches, and fixed torn frames that plagued hundreds of feet of film in every reel. The CinemaScope camera also had issues with film jitter and flicker, which were fixed digitally. Sony first began with the 4K scan of the original camera negative (2.55:1 aspect ratio) and used second-best elements in brief spots. Once the repairs were made, it was all mastered in true 4K.
Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard (“Summertime”) captured the action in the super widescreen CinemaScope format; the Bausch & Lomb anamorphic lens caused slight distortion on the left and right edges of the frame. But most importantly, Lean’s masterful composition is completely intact. Writer and film historian Clyde Jeavons, who oversaw “River Kwai’s” first 4K restoration screening at the London Film Festival in 2010, said, “One of Lean’s great virtues was composition. Particularly on the big screen, the composition was everything, and Lean certainly knew how to fill it.”
The new 4K presentation includes Dolby Vision for the first time, along with the standard HDR10, which was only available on the original 4K in 2017 for its 60th Anniversary. The surprise is, we found the previous 4K disc averaged between five to 10 megabits more video per second than this new version. Not sure if Dolby Vision required more space for its detailed metadata or if additional audio tracks grabbed some of the space allotment. Visually, you won’t notice the difference as the majority of the film is bathed in earth tones – particularly browns. The new disc does have a slightly brighter average light level compared to the first 4K disc, as the highlights are nicely controlled with detail; shadows are without blocking.
Film grain is evident throughout, a product of Sony being the best in the industry in keeping the grain intact and REAL. The grain only enlarges during brief flashes when a second-generation source is used.
The previous eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack is carried over from the previous release; height speakers only get brief sound effects and music cues from Malcolm Arnold’s Oscar-winning score. I prefer the restored original mono track.
You can’t go wrong adding this one to your growing 4K collection. And, since Sony also released “Lawrence of Arabia” this week in a Steelbook edition, you might as well treat yourself to a David Lean double-feature.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer